Egypt intensifies control on political activities and free speech


Nine years after the Arab Spring uprising that shook the country and toppled the autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, more freedom seems to be lost in Egypt every day as the threat of prison shapes the lives of a generation of Egyptians.

An estimated 60,000 political prisoners languish in jail, while the risk of imprisonment looms over even the apolitical, from businesspeople to doctors, lawyers and students.

Activists who forced the end of Mubarak’s reign have been silenced or have fled the country, while the Egyptian authorities have recently begun to target family members of outspoken critics based abroad, raiding homes and detaining at least 28 people.

Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi has overseen a broad crackdown on political activity and free speech, detaining journalists, NGO workers and even the mildest critics.

Egypt has built at least 19 new prisons since 2011, housing a swath of ordinary citizens such as Mohamed Nassif Mohamed Ghoneim, a tax office employee who was jailed in 2018 for a Facebook comment considered “offensive to the ruling regime, Sisi and the tax authority’s leaders.”

Public dissent on even benign issues is risky: 21 people were arrested for protesting against a rise in ticket prices on the Cairo metro the same year and later imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Anti-government protests in several cities last September only provoked a further crackdown. At least 4,433 people were arrested, according to the Egyptian commission for rights and freedoms, a Cairo-based NGO.

Egypt’s public prosecutor claimed 1,000 were detained.

Many remain in prison on charges of aiding a terrorist group, protesting illegally, misusing the internet, undermining national security or using social media to spread false news.

An activity as simple as shopping for clothes for a job interview was all it took for a 19-year-old student to be arrested in downtown Cairo on September 21. The student, whose family requested anonymity fearing reprisals, crossed one of the checkpoints that had sprung up around the centre of Cairo after protests the previous day, where security officials searched their phones and social media at random.

“We don’t know where he is being held and no one has told us where he is and what he is accused of,” said his brother. “We filed all kinds of police and reports to the public prosecutor about his disappearance. These were bureaucratic and meaningless. He was just shopping for clothes. Our family is waiting every day for him to return home tomorrow.”

The threat of prison has been amplified by increasing reports of deaths in custody. Mustafa Kassem, a US citizen, died in prison last week after a hunger strike in protest at his incarceration. Kassem was detained alongside his brother-in-law while changing money in a shopping centre in a Cairo suburb in 2013 and later given a 15-year sentence as part of a mass trial.

The interior ministry said Kassem received “comprehensive healthcare during his sentence”. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, expressed outrage over Kassem’s “pointless and tragic death” in a meeting with Sisi on the sidelines of a diplomatic summit in Berlin. But some observers accused Washington of failing to push hard enough for his release.

In November, the United Nations voiced fears that thousands more detainees across Egypt may be at risk from gross human rights abuses while in detention. Shortly afterwards, Egypt’s state information service released a video intended to contradict the UN’s statement, showing a visit by government officials to Cairo’s infamous Tora prison, including interviews with detainees.

As Saturday’s anniversary of the protest movement approached, Egyptian security forces made their presence felt once again in downtown Cairo, searching homes at random and demanding to see residents’ details to signal that no protests would be tolerated.

One resident said security officials had marched her from her home to a local police station for a precautionary check in case she was later charged with a crime. “It was traumatising,” she said. (Source: The Guardian)